QUINTESSENTIAL WORKERS: DEMANDING HUMAN DIGNITY FOR FARM LABOR

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featuring guest blogger ANASTASIA REISINGER (ND ‘21)

How often do you consider the sources of the produce you consume each day? Do you think about the long process that went into delivering that tomato on your burger, traveling from field to packinghouse to your favorite fast food chain, or all the workers who had a hand in that process? It’s easy to disassociate the food we consume from the labor that goes into making that food. After all, it mostly arrives to us in clean, plastic-wrapped packages on the shelves of supermarkets. However, the reality is that the food we consume each day is planted, harvested, and packaged by a poorly compensated and highly marginalized group of workers. Ignoring the unjust systems that make up the agriculture industry does a great disservice to these workers, especially in the midst of a pandemic wherein the production of food is one of America’s most essential services.

Even before the dawn of COVID-19, farmworkers endured deficient incomes, substandard housing, and poor hygiene. Harvesting produce like oranges, tomatoes, or greens requires huge amounts of labor, and to maintain their profit margins and keep that produce affordable, farmers pay low wages to their workers. With limited resources due to these poverty wages, many farmworkers reside in cramped living conditions alongside multiple other families. In such congregate housing conditions, recommended social distancing measures are simply not possible. As a study from the Wake Forest School of Medicine concludes for North Carolina (but applicable everywhere), “More than 25% of migrant camps violate regulations for sufficient laundry facility and bedroom space, and 1 in 5 camps has signs of rodent infestation.” Additionally, the sheer volume of people living in each house adds up quickly, resulting in high water bills that limit frequent hand-washing recommended by Center for Disease Control guidelines. 

In addition to facing these factors contributing to the spread of COVID-19, farmworkers suffer from chronically inadequate health care. Health care can be an issue in many rural communities, where access is often spotty and resources are lacking, but the problem is magnified for farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and cannot seek government-provided services. While most Americans receive their health care benefits through their jobs, farm work is seasonal with many different employers who do not provide health insurance, sick leave, or other critical benefits. This means that infected workers will continue showing up to work and spreading the virus, and if they do become critically sick, they likely won’t have access to the health care they deserve. 

Farmworkers make great personal sacrifices to ensure the provision of American produce; why must they shoulder all the responsibility? The reaction to COVID-19 among farms has been mixed, with some taking a stand and changing their policies for the protection of their workers and others ignoring the issue altogether. As with all essential workers during this period, it is not enough to voice appreciation for the contributions of farm laborers; instead, the American public must demand change to protect these workers and their families across the industry. Practical measures brought forward by the United Farm Workers of America include requiring sick leave for full-time workers, arranging for access to medical services, and implementing -- and enforcing -- formal social distancing policies in the workplace.

These pressing problems did not appear out of thin air as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, they are a longstanding feature of the agricultural industry. But in a period in which farmworkers risk their health and the health of their families to provide an essential service to the American public, we must rethink the industry standard that allows this group of people to be cast aside, somehow simultaneously “essential and worthless”. As Americans, we are all implicated in this issue by virtue of the food we consume each day. I encourage you to learn more and advocate for these workers before the spread of the pandemic overcomes vulnerable farmworker communities across the country. Currently, for example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based farm labor advocacy organization, is waging a campaign for greater protections for workers. Bearing witness to their struggle could be a great way to stand in solidarity with farmworkers at this time, appreciating their labor and voicing your concern.

I hope that the next time you bite into a fresh orange or bright salad, you acknowledge the labor of the farmworkers involved in the production of that food. These workers are human beings, and they deserve equal rights to health and a prosperous life. Although it should not take a global pandemic to highlight the suffering of farmworkers, I am hopeful that this moment may serve as a catalyst for systemic change in one of the most exploitative industries in American history.

Anastasia Reisinger is a rising senior at the University of Notre Dame, where she majors in International Economics and Peace Studies. She has been actively engaged with the Center for Social Concerns since her first year at Notre Dame, when she participated in the Migrant Experiences Seminar, which featured an immersion in Florida with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Since then, she has led two additional seminars, participated in the Summer Service Learning Program, and performed research for the Just Wage Initiative. In 2020-21 she will be continuing to conduct research with the Just Wage Initiative, acting as a student leader on the Seminars Task Force, and serving as a Rev. Don McNeill, C.S.C., Leadership Fellow.

 

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